Not many cities in the world can brag about having as much history as Erbil has.
Historians claim that the city has been permanently inhabited since the 28th century B.C., making it one of the oldest cities in the world, if not the oldest.
With 30,000 years of history and, today, a UNESCO World Heritage site, Erbil (or Hawler, as the locals call it) is the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan and a city that has played a very significant role in 21st-century history and the fight against the Islamic State.
Home to the Kurds, a nation of very brave and remarkable men and women, as well as super welcoming and hospitable, Erbil is a city of traditions with fantastic old bazaars, cafés, and historical sites, which can be visited while you bump into so many friendly locals, who you will likely share a cup of chai with.
However, if you think that visiting Erbil is just about wandering around a traditional Muslim city, you are completely wrong, because this is a real pro-Western metropolis and a business hub, home to a large expat community and some of the best nightlife in the Middle East, often compared to Beirut.
I have visited it twice and it is a city which really fascinates me, so here is a complete Erbil travel guide, which includes things to do in Erbil, as well as transportation and accommodation tips.
For all the practical information to the region, read: 50 Useful tips for traveling to Iraqi Kurdistan
Things to do in Erbil
Erbil is quite small, hence, most sites can be reached on foot.
Visit Erbil – Map of the things to do in Erbil
Enjoy a perfect sunny day at Erbil’s main square
Erbil’s main square is a lively place which is miles away from the stereotype you may have of Iraq.
This is where the Kurds meet, socialize and, basically, hang out. It is always crowded with all kinds of people, from kids to the local young hipsters and old men in their traditional clothes.
The square is enjoyed by sitting on any terrace from the many cafés around, which are always filled with Kurds having chai and smoking shisha. Just sit down, observe and all the pieces will come together.
Check out the obsession the Kurds have with worry-beads
The Kurds, especially the elderly, have one hobby, which is that they spend the whole day buying, selling and playing around with worry-beads, a sort of necklace. They touch them, squeeze them and switch them from one hand to the other, non-stop, for the whole day.
You can see people playing with worry-beads all over the Middle East, especially in Turkey, but seriously, nowhere else it is as crazy as in Erbil and Iraqi Kurdistan in general.
Even the least curious human being would ask why the hell they always have them. I asked several people across my journey in Kurdistan and the most common answer was that, traditionally, they used them for praying but then, they became a way to fight against stress, to the extent that it has become a habit which they can’t stop.
There is even a worry-bead market in the main square itself and it is one of the most interesting things to do in Erbil.
Visit Erbil Citadel, a UNESCO World Heritage site
Erbil’s Citadel has over 7,000 years of history and it was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage in 2014.
Nobody lives inside anymore but there are museums, buildings under restoration and a souvenir shop.
Yes, there is a souvenir shop and you can actually buy fridge magnets of Iraq and Kurdistan.
To be very honest, the inside of the citadel is not very exciting, as the restorations seems to take forever. It has been going since the first time I was there, in 2015, and not much had changed by my last visit to Erbil in 2018. The views, however, are gorgeous, especially at sunset, when the orange light covers up the minaret and clock tower of the main square.
Go for drinks to Ankawa, Erbil’s Christian district
Ankawa is home to the largest Christian community in Kurdistan, which means that it is an area with loads of liquor stores and churches, as well as where most expats live and, of course, where the nightlife in Erbil is going on.
The area is very pleasant to walk around, as you barely see cars and you won’t experience the chaos the Middle East is famous for.
Moreover, if you are tired of Kurdish food, here you will find a large variety of international restaurants, including Indian, Italian or Lebanese. They are a bit pricey but they are really good. I actually got some amazing Indian dal and curry but, perhaps, it was because I spent more two months eating the same thing every day when I was traveling in Iran, so putting some Indian spices into my mouth was like an explosion of flavors.
I recommend you check on Couchsurfing, meet up with local expats and go to any bar or restaurant. After some hard-backpacking, this one of the best things you to do in Erbil.
By the way, Ankawa is a bit far from Erbil’s citadel (5-6km). A taxi should cost around 5,000ID (4.20USD).
Have some tea at Machko Chai Khana, a 75-year old tea house
Serving everyone from famous politicians to tourists and all the locals in general, Machko was opened in 1940 and hasn’t been closed since then.
The most famous intellectuals and politicians from the country and from other parts of the Middle East have slurped sweet Kurdish tea on the terrace of this café, while talking about life and politics, and you should do the same.
It has been built into the wall of the citadel, western part of the square.
The covered bazaar
This maze of narrow alleys contains the most traditional shops in the city, from fabrics to dried fruits.
Allow some time to go around, as the locals love to be photographed, so if you are into street photography, this is the place to go.
Read: Is Erbil safe?
The money market
The craziest place.
The exchange offices in Erbil are street stalls with no security and the locals have huge bundles of money on the counter, without a window, without surveillance and in the middle of the street.
You can find a few money exchange stalls in the main bazaar (not the covered one), but there is a section where there are so many of them. Most stalls have Iraqi Dinars but I saw a few tables that had loads of Syrian notes with the fucking face of Bazar al-Assad printed on them.
Normally, you can’t take photos here, so you will have to be polite and friendly with the locals.
Check out Erbil’s particular street art
Not sure whether this may be considered graffiti or not but there are some peculiar murals on a few walls across the city.
All of them represent peace, Kurdish soldiers’ heroism and the important role that women play in military Kurdish affairs. In case you didn’t know, the Kurdish women participate in the battlefield.
I saw these paintings during my first visit to Erbil. However, those walls belonged to a Government building and, after taking the photo, some soldiers came from across the street and were actually quite upset. I said that I just wanted to take a photo of the murals and, in any case, why would those cool murals be there then.
It was not a big deal but, when I came back in 2018, the murals were gone, maybe because too many foreigners were stopping for taking photos. It was really close to the citadel (location on the map), so I recommend you go there to see if there is any new painting.
Check out the abandoned Arab Quarter
For your information, Kurds are not Arabs, yet, both cultures have been coexisting for a long time.
The old Arab quarter is downtown and, nowadays, it is completely abandoned and in ruins, which makes it particularly interesting to walk around and feel the creepiness of the place.
Look for Kurdish food
If you are invited to some houses, you are likely to get some good, hearty meals.
However, the food served in the streets and restaurants is mainly simplified to shawarmas, falafel, kebabs and, if you are very lucky, local eateries serving rice with red beans and meat stews.
Nevertheless, it is not about the food but the atmosphere. The local eateries are filled with very friendly Kurds and, since not many foreigners like to eat there, everybody will be very happy with your presence, so it is an easy way to meet some locals.
In Erbil, I had lunch at some of the eateries located inside the covered bazaar, right next to the citadel. Go around 1pm, when they are full.
Travel Insurance for Erbil
As you may know, most embassies and governments don’t really recommend traveling to Erbil.
This means that most regular travel insurance companies such as World Nomads, don’t offer travel policies for Iraq.
Therefore, one of the very few which does cover is IATI Insurance, a travel company based in Europe that provides coverage to a big bunch of adventurous destinations, such as Iraq, Sudan, Syria in Iran.
Check it out, it has many different plans and the readers of this blog can get an exclusive 5% discount.
Tour guide for Erbil
If you are looking for a good tour guide, I really recommend you go with Karwan, the independent guide behind Iraqi Kurdistan Tours.
Do some online research and you will see that he has become a real legend in the region, as he has loads of outstanding reviews.
Moreover, for being a reader of this blog, you can get a 5% discount on your final price by using my code ATC-KURD.
Just email him at email@example.com and mention Against the Compass and my code.
Where to stay when you visit Erbil
In Erbil, accommodation is expensive, as there are no hostels and guest houses and the cheapest options can’t be booked online.
Super Budget – Layli Baghdad – For the most budget hotel, you will pay around 15,000ID for one single room. There are a few of them in the city and I recommend staying at Layli Baghdad, in Bata Street, West of the bazaar. This is the location: 36.188962,44.007374
Budget Hotel – Fareeq – With super friendly staff and modern facilities, this reasonably budget hotel is the cheapest hotel in town which can be booked online. It has loads of positive reviews and the location is great. Overall, a good, practical option.
Nicer – Erbil View Hotel – This hotel is pretty good and, actually, the top-rated in the city. Everybody claims that the staff are amazing, as well as the breakfast and the hotel in general.
Top-end – Divan Erbil Hotel – One of the most popular luxury choices in Erbil. If you are looking for real comfort and affordable luxury, this is the place.
Getting to and from the airport when you visit Erbil
Getting to and from Erbil airport is a bit tricky. Due to extreme security measures, you can’t actually reach the airport by car, but only one specific taxi company can get to the terminal. Most cars and taxis will leave you just outside the airport, where there is a shuttle bus free of charge that goes to the terminal.
From the airport to Erbil – At the arrival terminal, those expensive taxis will offer you to take to the center, charging from 35 to 50USD, depending on where you go. If you want to save money, take the shuttle bus to just outside the airport, where taxis charge normal rates. They typically charge from 10,000 to 15,000ID (8 to 12.50USD).
From Erbil to the airport – Just take a regular taxi. I paid 12,000ID (10USD) from the citadel.
Moving around Erbil
Taxis – The easiest and most comfortable way to move around. Typically, any ride within the city costs from 3,000 to 5,000ID (2.50 to 4.20USD).
Buses – Most likely, you won’t need to take a bus but depending on where you stay, like in New Hawler for example, you must take the bus, if you don’t wanna be ripped off by a taxi. The bus station is close to the citadel, next to Downtown Mall.
Getting out of Erbil – Local shared taxis are the most common way of getting out of the city. You may also find mini-vans, which are cheaper but they travel to very few places and run less often. In any case, the terminal is right here: 36.205632, 44.046895.
Remember to read all my articles and guides to Iraqi Kurdistan
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